Gabazira's blog

The Effectiveness-Lab

The fallacy that deploying more staff resources fixes workload

Do you get up worried about the amount of work waiting for you at the office and how resource constrained you are to clear it? It’s a familiar story in this era of ‘doing more for less’

Leaders and managers grapple with decisions related to the above enigma all the time. They are torn between increasing staff numbers to a point where they may be asked by their boards to restructure and reduce numbers, resist increasing staff numbers and oversee a very stretched and stressed team, or give in to the staff number increase push, even if by a few, only to be asked for even more staff after a few months or years.

It can be a very creepy affair if not managed with a values-driven and principled approach by those in top positions. The worker, toiling away daily, wants as soft a landing as possible – we all do, and it’s human. The leaders that are paid to strike that delicate balance between allowing enough resources to attain signature value-addition at the firm and protecting owner resources against waste and any kind of slack in the system, resist such asks. Clearly, we are dealing with two opposing work philosophies

So – those selling labour to firms cringe away at any sign of work-stretch via having to put in more hours, tasks piling up, etc. They will ask for more human resources or pay to accomplish the growing task mountain. On the opposing side, the leader’s natural instinct is to push back on such demands. After all, leaders are paid to maximize value creation while deploying owner resources in the most effective and efficient manner. That is what begets efficacy in business value chains.

An article in the MIT Sloan Management review poignantly describes this OD. enigma, but also brings to the table an extremely potent solution. And it’s not about hiring more staff.

“The costs of overload are well-documented: It makes people less creative, less productive, more prone to illness, less likely to hit deadlines and goals, and more likely to leave their organizations to work elsewhere. And it’s been implicated in many major accidents and disasters, from BP’s Texas City Refinery explosion to the more recent U.S. Navy ship collisions. But, despite the evidence, many leaders continue to believe that their organizations thrive when overloaded, often both creating pressure and rewarding those who deliver under duress. It’s a popular but pathological approach to management.“

Leaders are stuck in a task-management rut. They don’t always seem to know what to do, and if they do, they don’t seem to have the wherewithal to deal with it. After all, we all understand how complicated it is to change organizational culture. This OD. enigma is close to what one would call an industry-culture and will take a lot of resources and mental energies to change.

The fix:

Rarely do leaders and those they lead think about ‘optimising’ existing resources via task/process re-engineering.

According to the Sloan management review – the underlying issue is to understand the difference between the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ approach to task management and how to deploy the latter in especially knowledge organizations

Under the push system, organizations throw tasks at individuals until such a point that there is enough load to maximize performance at the enterprise. Tasks are decoupled with each worker pushing as much work as possible to the next person in the business value chain, whether they are ready for it or not. Sadly in many instances – it’s a case of overload than optimal load. Leaders become task ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses,’ that without a proper rubric, understand when there is enough to do or not for an individual. Clearly, leaders normally opt to play it safe – i.e., over than under-load an employee’s task ledger.

The alternative is the pull system. In the pull system, the amount of work given to an individual and passed on to those up the chain is carefully controlled. A pull system sets limits, lower and upper, on pipeline tasks. Work in Process (WIP) is managed and where necessary limited – and reprioritization of tasks is normal. To successfully work in a pull system requires task management discipline – for example, the task prioritization process has to be respected. Managers that opt to expedite specific tasks, unforeseen initially, disrupt and in some cases break the pull system. The smart managers – or the so-called innovators – have a tendency to keep adding to the existing task load without considering human limits. While the latter is okay in a push system, it disrupts the pull system and undermines its positive impact. According to the Sloan management review, the pull approach brings about transparency in task management that culminates in more learning and productivity.

To run a sound pull system, be sure to have:

  • staff buy-in for the pull system
  • a task clearinghouse system, for example, a weekly-task-coordination meeting where task vetting, trading, and de/reprioritization happens
  • a one-stop shop, i.e., a software portal or even manual excel sheet, where all tasks are managed – this gives leaders the helicopter view of the work-in-process situation at the firm, and how aligned all functions are to strategic priorities
  • Discipline amongst the team

So – do you want to consider deploying the pull than push system and its appetite for overloading workforce?


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About Me

Apollo B. Gabazira is an Ugandan OD. junkie fascinated by matters that render organisations/individuals effective or not. He blogs on effective leadership and management. He is a devoted green-farmer and breeds the Ayrshire cow at Nakabugu, Luuka district, Uganda. Apollo is quite effective at what he chooses to do.


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